Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Defense of Dr. Ossian Sweet by Clarence Darrow

Dr. Ossian Sweet's Crime

What was the crime committed by Ossian Sweet, his wife, his brothers, and seven of his friends?

Dr. Ossian Sweet
Dr. Ossian Sweet

From a rather simple premise someone shot and killed Leon Breiner, probably from the second-story window of the house that the defendants were occupying the story becomes complicated. Was a mob threatening Dr. Sweet and his companions? Or was the death of Leon Breiner a deliberate act of the murder of an innocent man who was merely standing in a cluster of peaceful, curious onlookers? To complicate matters further, what was the role of the Ku Klux Klan and its surrogate organizations in fomenting this tragedy?

To understand the elements that brought together the principals of this incident, one has to examine Detroit in the 1920s. Indeed, the entire climate of race relations in the United States in the early 20th Century has to be considered.

Detroit, Michigan
Detroit, Michigan

Segregation, particularly in housing, was not confined to the South and its notorious Jim Crow practices. Nor were lynching of Negroes or race riots unknown in the industrial North. Finally, the work of the Ku Klux Klan was not only a Southern phenomenon. There were subtle differences between North and South, but the fundamental injustices against blacks were just as severe in both regions of the country.

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